Escaping the Back Room
I played make believe often as a child. In fact, I think I was more often living in my own imaginary world than the real one. You could often find me wrapped up in my own little world pining over which N’SYNC member I was currently engaged to (Lance Bass always won), dutifully taking care of my baby dolls, or arranging my beanie babies by whatever category best suited my needs that day.
One of my favorite places to play was a family members “back room”, as the other children in my extended family and I called it. The other young kids and I could play for hours back there during family parties. We would run into this family members cozy house, give hugs, and disappear for hours playing with whatever lucky toys we had brought from home while the adults cooked and chatted in the kitchen and dining room.
When I was about ten years old I was playing with a couple of other children in the back room, completely lost in our world of make believe, when the lights went out and the door was quietly shut so just a mere crack of light leaked through.
We squealed in excitement as an adult male family member began an elaborate game of tickle monster, something he had been doing more and more at each family gathering. So much so that we had grown accustomed to the tickling and wrestling in the dark of whatever home we were gathered in.
This time was different. I remember we were on the twin trundle bed, the one with the old blue floral comforter. I remember it was crazy hair day at school that day because I had tons of bobby pins in my hair pinning up my many braids. I have a particular memory of the tickling getting a little too rough and feeling a bobby pin jam part way into my ear.
As the tickling got more and more rough I remember this sick gut feeling fill my heart as I felt the tickle monsters hand slide under my shirt and up towards my breast. I remember it felt very clear where his hand was planning to go. I instinctively pushed it away, laughing nervously, as the tickling ensued.
Then the feeling returned, just a minute or so later, as he tried again. I pushed his hand down again and made some excuse about needing to talk with my mom about the bobby pins in my hair. I quickly got up and left the room.
Thank goodness for that.
I walked down the hallway, past the other bedrooms, and out into the living room where the other adults were chatting, completely unaware of the tickle monster still tickling in the back room.
I saw my mom sitting in the worn down brown recliner, laughing at the conversation ensuing between adults. I sat down on the carpet next to the chair, frozen. I was unsure what to do. I remember just sitting there, screaming inside that I just wanted to talk to my mom alone but not draw attention to myself.
At one point she got up to take out the trash and I flanked her. I followed her outside. I don’t even think she noticed my presence because of how deathly quiet I was. I walked behind her and whispered, “Mom?”
“Yea cutie pie?” she responded.
“I need to talk to you about something that happened in the back room.”
I proceeded to tell her what happened and I watched as her eyes grew wide and then her eyebrows creased as if she too was trying to understand how a trusted family member could do that.
I remember wondering if she would believe me or believe him. She hugged me and told me that she was so proud of me for telling her and said I should stay by her the rest of the night. I remember breathing a sigh of relief knowing that my mom believed me and would protect me.
After that I don’t remember what happened. I don’t have memories of seeing this family member emerge from out of the back room, or talking with him further that day. What I do remember is that sick feeling of someone approaching a private area of my body, of taking advantage of a 10 year old enjoying what she thought was a harmless tickle fight, and of what it felt like to have a family member abuse trust.
Now there is more to this story, but it is not mine to tell. I can tell you that the tickle monster went on to abuse other children. I can tell you that this family member is no longer in any of our lives, and choices he made have caused him a lifetime of pain. I can tell you that my mother and father never confronted him, again for reasons that are too complicated to get into, and truthfully not mine to share. I can tell you that from that day on, my mother and father watched me like a hawk at any family gatherings, and they never once let me be anywhere alone with him.
If he offered to take us somewhere, or invited my brother and I to activities that he would be chaperoning, we would politely decline.
He even coached my basketball team one year, not long after the back room incident, and my mom was there at every single practice. I still can picture her sitting in her little foldable chair reading or busying herself with a task. She was the only parent that attended practice, but I was always so incredibly thankful that she was there. I will always be so thankful to my mother and my father for believing me, and for protecting me no matter the cost.
What I love about my mom is she didn’t care how ridiculed she was that she was the only parent at practice. She didn’t care that she worked full time, was taking care of her sick husband battling cancer, and tending to my sibling. She was always there.
I have realized that the tickle sessions leading up to that fateful back room incident were a form of grooming. Abusers not only groom children but the children’s parents. He would see how far he could go, how I responded to his tickling, but he also was testing the adults to see if he would be checked on during these tickle fights.
From a very young age my parents taught me, in language and terms I don’t specifically recall, that my body is mine and that I dictate who touches it. Most importantly they taught me that I have the power to GET UP AND LEAVE. I have specific memories of my father saying that to me throughout my life, “If you don’t feel comfortable, get up and leave” he would say. Of course I realize that that is not often an option for those in a sexual abuse situation, but I am thankful I was taught that I always had that option.
My parents taught me about sex and about my body over and over again during formal sit downs and impromptu talks in the car. They taught me to ask questions and to not be afraid to come to them when I was unsure or scared. I wasn’t afraid to talk to them about difficult things because I knew they would take time, right then, to talk to me about my questions and concerns.
That day I confided in my mom she taught me a crucial lesson, probably without realizing it. She taught me that she believed me over an adult. She taught me that I was her priority and that she would do anything to protect me and make me feel secure, even if it made her receive backlash from family and friends.
Now I know this is not the case for everyone, I know that my story is unique. In fact a story like mine is often seen going the other way. Just typing this had me shaking and teary eyed, so I can only imagine what those who have been abused feel like facing their scars. And if you are reading this and have been abused, or nearly abused, please know that it was not your fault. Nothing that happened to you was your fault. It doesn’t matter how you were raised, or what you were taught. IT WAS NOT YOUR FAULT.
I have replayed that situation in the back room in my head over and over again in my youth and into adulthood. I have discovered that it could have been a very different outcome had I been taught differently by my parents. It could have been very different had I been the only child in the room. And while I recognize that I nearly escaped what could have been years of pain, I also acknowledge that it was not just my parents teaching me, but circumstances that saved me that day. Not only did my parents teachings prepare me for that situation, but having other children in the room allowed me to easily get up and leave. Sadly, that is not the case for the majority.
How I Have Chosen to Mother (18 Years Later)
I am now a mother of two beautiful children. When I became a mother I started to feel those sick feelings I felt in the back room rise up my throat more often than I care to admit. I realized that those feelings were not only a result of my experience, but a result of my new title, “momma”.
I would like to share how that experience has shaped me as a mother. While that experience still haunts me to this day, I am thankful for it only because I have learned some valuable lessons that I have carried into motherhood.
My experience in the back room has caused me to watch my children very closely. More specifically, I watch WHO is with my children like a hawk. I know people in my life sense how watchful I am, but I don’t care. I carried those children, I birthed those children, and I nurture those children. I have EVERY RIGHT to be picky about who is in their lives.
So I watch.
I watch how people interact with my children, where their hands go when they hold them, and if there is any odd or inappropriate behavior. No, I am not obsessive, just very aware.
I teach my children, from the time they can talk, the anatomical names of their body parts, and we openly talk about their private areas and answer any questions they have as they arise. I don’t become nervous or act silly when we talk about those body parts. By doing this we have had easy and informative discussions with my 3 year old about private areas of our body and about how our body parts work. We have even had open discussions about what to do if someone asked her to pull down her pants, or if someone tried to touch her private areas,. The best part is all of these discussions happened completely naturally and were opened up by a simple question she had.
As I have reflected on my experience I have realized how crucial it is to be their voice, and teach them how to use their own voice early. So I made a promise to myself on behalf of my children. I promised to be their greatest advocate. To speak when they could not yet speak, or are too scared to do so. To not place them in uncomfortable situations with uncomfortable people. To speak up when an adult family members ignores my child trying to set boundaries. For example if someone says “come give me a hug” and forces the issue after my child says no, I speak up. And I promised to always believe them when they come to me, no matter what it was.
And I made a promise to myself that I would not let anyone squash my voice as their parent. As a parent I have come to learn the following concept: No one–be it family member, friend, or teacher–has the right to overrule you as a parent. You decide who your child rides with, spends time with, etc. Do not fall into the trap of trusting the wolf in sheeps clothing. Do not let something happen that you are uncomfortable with because of social expectations. Your children are looking to you to be their voice and guardian—don’t take that lightly.
My mother was labeled the worry-wart of the family, the overly cautious one. I will thank her every day of my life for being overly cautious and protecting me from a dangerous family member.
Questions and Resources
Since my experience in the back room, and since becoming a mother, I have asked a lot of questions. While I may not hold all the answers, I have developed my own answers to these questions based on statistics and conversations with victims of sexual abuse.
1. Why does this happen?
Of course answers can vary: the abuser was abused as a child or teen and then became an abuser, uncontrolled sexual impulses and curiosity, pornography addiction, and more. None of these reasons will ever excuse sexual abuse of any human being, but they are some findings I have come across in my research.
One statistic I read said that almost every, if not every, person that sexually abuses another has been exposed to or addicted to pornography.
That does not mean everyone that struggles with a pornography addiction, or who has looked at pornography will become a sexual abuser.
BUT the vast majority of sexual abusers have been exposed to, or deeply immersed in pornography. THAT IS TERRIFYING. For those reading this with the thought that pornography is not harmful or just another way to sexually express yourself, think again. PORN FUELS VIOLENCE.
2. How can we stop the abuse cycle?
This question is a critical one, but one where my thought processes often stammer to a stop. Simply because we cannot control the actions of other human beings. Instead of dwelling on answering that question, I started thinking of how I could teach my children about this topic.
To start, I thought of how to teach my children the basics of being a respectful human being. I want my children to hold doors open for other people, to make eye contact with people while they talk, to value social interaction as opposed to screen time. I want to teach my children to talk kindly to and about others, and to always help someone who is sad or hurt. While these may not seem to have anything to do with sexual abuse, these suggestions have everything to do with respecting fellow human beings. And a major part of sexual abuse is disrespect.
I want to teach them how to respect other peoples bodies and that impulsivity based on curiosity is not tolerated in any form. I want to teach them that there are restrictions and limitations to their wants and desires.
I want to teach my children the importance of watching good media. On the flip side, I want to teach them what to do when they see or read something that makes them feel sexually aroused or curious. I want to have preparatory talks about what those feelings might evoke. I want to talk to them about what sexual expression is and isn’t, and that the media is not a place to turn to for sexual understanding.
I want to teach them that sexual curiosity is normal, but that there are consequences when acting impulsively and without someone’s consent.
I also want them to know that its okay to come to us with questions about anything they see or are curious about. That there is no shame in asking questions and having a discussion about a sometimes uncomfortable topic.
I want to teach them early about their anatomical body parts, and that even mommy and daddy need to ask before touching their private areas during baths, changing, etc.
I want to teach them about tricky people (a great and important read!) I want to talk with them in depth, in causal or formal circumstances, and often, about what to do when they feel unsafe with anyone.
Finally, I want to create a relationship with my children that fosters honesty and safety.
When I think back to that scared 10 year old version of myself who was heard by her parent, I now want to BE that parent. I want to teach them that no matter what happens to them they can come and confide in me, that I will not be upset with them for telling the truth.
This might not change the cycle, and sadly it will not eliminate every sexual abuse case.
But I am living proof that parents can help give children the tools they need to be protected, to make it ONE LESS child abused.
We can change the norm, we can empower future generations, we can help fight against sexual abuse.
Resources for Teaching Your Littles and Not So Littles
Here are some great recommended resources for teaching children about some of the very things discussed above. I have not read all of these, but they have been recommended to me by friends! It's worth taking a look, reading descriptions and reviews, and choosing the best for your family.
Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr.
I Said No-A Kid to Kid Guide to Keeping Private Parts Private
Off Limits: A Parents Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse